Tue 07 Jun, 2016

Nothing New Under The Sun

A digital library containing everything yet to be written

Ian J / #automation, #Jorge Luis Borges, #Library of Babel

This article has already been written. It has been possible to find it online for over a year prior to my writing it. I am not creating original content, but simply re-producing what already exists. Look, here it is…

image1The above screenshot is taken from The Library of Babel. This is an online resource based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. The library consists of approximately 104677 virtual books. The pages within each book consist of 3,200 characters. In total, every single possible combination of 3,200 characters can be found within the library.

In other words, every poem, story, joke, script or opinion piece that you or I have the potential to write has already been generated by an algorithm and is currently sitting somewhere within the vast library.

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Another fun idea – the library of babel also contains any perfect prediction about the future, you just need to know where to look. For example, if only I knew to look at this page a few weeks ago:

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But of course knowing where to look is precisely the difficulty. For each correct prediction of the future, there are a colossal number of incorrect predictions, surrounded by an even more gargantuan sea of incomprehensible gibberish.

The reactions I’ve encountered to the Library of Babel have ranged from intellectual curiosity, existential angst and melancholia, but also near-complete apathy, due to the aforementioned problem.

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Personally, I’m not sure what to make of the library. Whereas the original story is certainly an interesting thought experiment, I find the fact that this now exists, albeit in digital form, at least a little spooky. Furthermore, the online Library of Babel also has an image catalogue, containing every combination of possible images (pixel location and colour) within defined parameters.

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But with increasing developments in technology, will the library stop at images? What about all possible permutations of audio files? Or video clips?

One definition of creation, as given by the Oxford Dictionary, reads ‘The action or process of bringing something into existence.’

In a post-Babel world, to what degree can we continue to think of ourselves as creative beings in line with this particular definition? Arguably, we do not create in the true sense. We do not produce anything of genuine novelty. We cannot will matter into being, from the abyss of nothingness. We are at best able to combine the materials provided to us in ways that we recognise as meaningful.

The Library of Babel contains millions of tales of love, loss, companionship, betrayal, revenge, stories which, if discovered, would become international bestsellers. Yet the library itself cannot recognise the value of these over and above a myriad stream of non-sequiturs. Only we can isolate and accentuate the truly important amongst an ocean of random noise.

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(Thanks to these guys. And also these too).

Ian is unmarried, childless and doesn't own any pets, therefore he struggles to make himself instantly relatable. He lives in Sheffield under duress. By day, he works in the NHS. At night-time, you can find him asleep in his room.

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